Obituary: Robert Erskine, wartime despatch rider and joiner

Born: 25 January, 1911, in Forth, Lanarkshire. Died: 8 August, 2015, in Uphall, West Lothian, aged 104.

War veteran who was one half of Britain's most enduring marriage. Picture: Contributed

WHEN Robert Erskine met Susan Ralston at a church dance in Bo’ness it marked a defining moment in both their lives, igniting the spark of a ­romance that was to span an ­astonishing 83 years.

It was 1932, Scotland was in the grip of the Great Depression and the era was characterised by mass unemployment, social unrest and the Hunger Marches. But all that was forgotten for a few hours amid the whirl of dancers at Carriden Parish Church – where some were more competent on their feet than others.

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“He wasn’t as good a dancer as me,” Susan revealed earlier this year. “But he was what I wanted.” And, despite his perceived shortcomings on the dance floor, it was apparently love at first sight for the couple who courted for the next five years.

They finally married in Carriden Church in 1937 and, since the Second World War, were never separated for more than a day, going on to enjoy Scotland’s most enduring marriage and celebrate their 78th anniversary this year – a uniquely long and happy union that came to a poignant end with the death of Robert this month.

Thought to have been named after the poet Rabbie Burns, on whose birthday he was born in 1911, Robert arrived in the world in the village of Forth, South Lanarkshire, the son of mining engineer William Erskine and his wife Marion.

The couple, who also had two other sons and four daughters, moved to Bo’ness where young Robert, then aged seven, completed his education and on leaving school he became an apprentice joiner and subsequently a skilled cabinetmaker.

He was 21 when he met his future wife at the church dance and they married in 1937, on New Year’s Day, a popular day to tie the knot then as it was the only day everyone was guaranteed to be off work, enabling all their family to attend the wedding.

Their first son, William, was born in January 1939. That autumn the Second World War broke out and Robert served in the Royal Corps of Signals, as a despatch rider in Baghdad and Cairo, delivering vital documents to the front line. His daughter Margaret was born during the war but, like many returning fathers, he was initially a stranger to the little girl.

During his military service he had written to his wife almost every day until they were reunited. “I never wanted him to leave,” recalled Susan, “It was just so wonderful when he came home to us.”

In the 1950s the couple became parents for a third time when son Bobby was born. They also moved to Edinburgh where Robert worked with Colin McAndrew & Son until he was in his late 60s, ending his career as a manager in a joinery shop. He then took on a job at Dunfermline College in Edinburgh, finally retiring aged 78.

After that he and his wife decided to return to Bo’ness. A keen cricketer, he had played for West Lothian Cricket Club and when he retired from the sport he spent most of his time in his garden, producing gloriously colourful floral displays.

Still active in the community until a few years ago, the couple, neither of whom ever had a passport and spent all their holidays in this country, believed their teetotal, non-smoking lifestyle was a factor in their longevity and were an inspiration to the family, the youngest and oldest of whom were born more than a century apart.
According to Susan, the secret to a long life was plenty of exercise and a diet of porridge, soup, mince and fruit, and when they celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary she explained: “My mother taught me never to be lazy and to always have meals on the table for my husband. We’ve always taken life one day at a time and walked through it hand in hand.”

She said: “Robert has always been by my side, all throughout the years since the war. I love him as much now as I did then and we still kiss and hold hands, despite being married for so long.”

Like any couple they had their disagreements but did not brood over them and always made up, citing the age-old ethos of give and take as an element of their success, along with listening to each other and respecting their partner’s opinion – and a good dash of old-fashioned romance.

In January, when they received yet another congratulatory telegram from the Queen on their 78th anniversary, Robert, a very proud family man, shared his wisdom, eloquently explaining: “It’s all about compromise and allowing the other person in your life to be the person they want to be.”

Robert, whose funeral service was held in the church where he met and married his wife Susan, now aged 103, is survived by her, their children William, Margaret and Bobby, six grandchildren and seven great grandchildren.